David Brooks is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard. He also writes on various facets of culture and politics for publications such as The New Yorker, and has worked as a correspondent and editor of The Wall Street Journal. This is his first book.
Bobos in Paradise is a pop treatise on the United States’ upper class of the new millennium. The book draws together and expands on several shorter essays that Brooks wrote for the Weekly Standard. Those essays took an irreverent, occasionally bemused look at certain developments from the new wealth created in the 1990’s. They attempted to define (and to a lesser extent, explain) how this new wealth was changing the people that earned it and the society that catered to them. Bobos in Paradise attempts to integrate these observations into a central thesis about the United States’ new upper class. Unfortunately, that central thesis is not as clear as it could be.
In general, Brooks describes this new upper class as “bourgeois bohemians,” emphasizing the paradoxical and conflictive nature of its constituent elements. As Brooks writes:
The values of the bourgeois mainstream culture and the values of the 1960’s counterculture have merged. That culture war has ended, at least within the educated class. . . . In the resolution between the culture and the counterculture, it is impossible to tell who co-opted whom, because in reality the bohemians and the bourgeois co-opted each other. They emerge from this process as bourgeois bohemians, or bobos.
It is an amusing assertion. One is struck by the irony of a rich, privileged class adopting the external trappings of the counterculture. The bourgeoisie were known as excruciatingly conformist, proper, materialist, and self-focused. At least that is how the Marxists viewed them, and many bourgeois themselves would probably not have challenged that description very vigorously. The bohemians, on the other hand, were supposed to be nonconformist intellectuals whose thoughts veered to the philosophical and transcendent. That dot-com millionaires wear worn chinos to stockholder meetings and quote Friedrich Nietzsche in interoffice memos seems surreal.
Bobos in Paradise operates on two levels. For the casual reader, and primarily in its earlier chapters, the book offers a breezy and irony-tinged gentle lampoon of the cell-phone-and-sports-utility-vehicle (SUV) set. Brooks unselfconsciously counts himself among the bobos, and reckons that many of his readers probably fit in that category as well. As a result, his humor-larded mockery of bobos takes on an almost smarmy flavor, akin to the sweet-toothed twenty-something calling herself a “chocoholic.” Still, the bourgeois-bohemian paradox presents numerous opportunities for ridicule. One of the primary themes is how bobos spend extraordinary amounts of money to exhibit their supposedly bohemian values. He writes of bobos’ purchase of sun-dried tomato cheese sticks, furniture “that takes its cues from the European peasantry,” kitchen appliances that cost more than a Lexus, and $100,000 rattan baskets. He notes the irony of vacationing bobos who fancy themselves true participants in an exotic, authentic culture, but who in fact are viewed by the locals as tourists with lots of money. Chapter by chapter he examines how bobos spend their money, pursue their careers, educate themselves, seek out pleasure, and grasp for spiritual meaning. The general theme is that bobos’ discomfort with the ostentatious displays of wealth has driven them to inventive, and frequently silly, contortions to rationalize extravagant consumption as somehow salubrious for themselves and society.
Beneath this gentle mockery that brings to mind humorist Dave Barry’s weekly columns, Brooks is spinning out a thesis—or several theses. Centrally, Brooks argues that bobos, unlike previous elite classes, are reconcilers who have managed to unite the productivity and material success of the establishment with the idealism and vigor of the counterculture. They have seemingly created for themselves comfortable, privileged lifestyles surrounded by myriad material belongings while simultaneously holding enlightened values. They make enormous amounts of money, but they seemingly do not exploit others. They consume scads of goods and services, but they are “saving the earth.” There may be less to this “reconciliation” than the bobos—and perhaps Brooks—would like to admit. In theory, however, it is a defining aspect of the bobo class.
The secret to this reconciliation is something Brooks calls “the higher selfishness” of bobos. Most of the defining elements of the 1980’s “me generation” have, for the bobos, been somehow...
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